Out of the Blue: Life on the Road with Muddy Waters (American Made Music Series)

Image of Out of the Blue: Life on the Road with Muddy Waters: Life on the Road with Muddy Waters (American Made Music Series)
Release Date: 
March 11, 2024
University Press of Mississippi
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To be young, blues-besotted, and touring with Muddy Waters, the great Mississippi-born singer and guitarist who electrified a Delta folk style and, on his own and through disciples like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and many other rock gods, made that sound world-famous—that was Brian Bisesi’s life from the late seventies to the early eighties. Out of the Blue is his revealing and engaging account of life on the road with Waters, encounters with rock stars, and the economic and other challenges of life as a blues musician.

Bisesi worked for McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield as a fill-in guitarist, road manager, and confidant. How did a “twenty-two-year-old Italian dude from the [New] Jersey suburbs” get to play “with a Deep South blues legend named Muddy Waters?” Bisesi says he happened to be in the right place, at the right time, and “played the right thing—a guitar.” He was a dedicated fan and a regular at the blues icon’s shows in the New York area and Boston. He befriended Bob Margolin, a guitarist in Waters’ band, and when the band’s other guitarist, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, took a leave of absence for health reasons, Margolin asked Bisesi to sit in at a New Jersey club gig.

Luckily for Bisesi, Waters was impressed by his playing. When he offered the young musician a job—albeit a temporary one, until Johnson recovered—Bisesi quit his day gig and went on the road with his idol and his band. At first, Bisesi played only on the three numbers the band would perform before the star made his entrance. But once he impressed Waters with his mastery of the bluesman’s style, “Muddy gave me a lot of room to play,” letting him take solos and play fills and chords to accompany his vocals.

When “Guitar Junior” returned from his convalescence, Bisesi's role shifted. He became Waters’ road manager, a demanding and sometimes frustrating role to which he fully committed himself. He ensured that band members got to the engagements on time (Waters traveled separately from his musicians), often driving them hundreds of miles from gig to gig, dealt with promoters, club owners, and media, and collected the money after the shows.

Having earned Waters’ trust, he became his confidant and informal advisor until Waters, at the urging of his manager, Scott Cameron, fired him and the musicians who had backed him for more than seven years. (If there is a villain in this story, it’s Cameron.) That band included some of the blues’ finest players: pianist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, bassist Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, guitarist Bob Margolin, and harmonica player Jerry Portnoy.

Bisesi toured with Waters across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. He met rock stars who revered his boss and, in two notable cases—the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton—had largely based their styles on Waters’ music. Waters, Bisesi writes, loved the Stones, who had named themselves after one of his songs, promoted his music to their fans, and had him as an opening act on their tours. In Chicago, Bisesi walks into Waters’ dressing room and sees him “with an arm wrapped around his buddy Keith Richards.” Then, like a feudal lord summoning a vassal, he tells Bisesi, “When Mick arrives, bring him to me.”

Eric Clapton came into the picture in November 1978 when Waters embarked on a European tour as the guitarist’s opening act. The five-week stint was a boon for Waters, whose thrilling vocals and distinctive slide guitar playing won him new fans and wider recognition. But for Clapton, having to follow the blues titan was nothing short of traumatic because “the opening act was overpowering the featured attraction.” Watching Waters’ set from the wings “completely drained” the guitarist proclaimed “God” by his more ardent fans. (Although Bisesi doesn’t mention it, this wasn’t the first time Clapton felt intimidated by one of his blues heroes. During the recording of The London Sessions with Howlin’ Wolf in 1971, Clapton fumbled the introduction to “Little Red Rooster” and asked an exasperated Wolf to show him how to play it properly. It’s all on the record.)

Thanks to some smart interventions by Bisesi and Scott Cameron, Clapton and Waters not only became comfortable with each other, they developed a close friendship, a “kind of father/son relationship.” Waters admired Clapton’s playing but worried about his heavy drinking. So did Bisesi when he became a sort of minder for a wayward Clapton during a U.S. tour with Waters.

Bisesi offers some vivid anecdotes of life on the road with Muddy Waters and his musicians, some amusing (the pranks band members played on each other), others far less so. Waters’ racially mixed band sometimes attracted hostile attention from police. In one incident, U.S. border police strip-searched the band’s Black members but didn’t search Bisesi, Portnoy, or Margolin, the white members. After Bisesi's tense encounter with a white cop in Texas, a Black band member told him, “Well, son, now you have a little idea of how we were treated in the South when I was growing up.”

Otherwise, race doesn’t figure much in Bisesi's book. Even when he notes how Waters was consistently underpaid for his performances, Bisesi doesn’t remark on the injustice of his white rock disciples making enormous fortunes from their appropriation of Waters’ music. In the years that Bisesi worked for him, Waters lived comfortably in a house in a Chicago suburb. But he never made the kind of money such a foundational figure of 20th century music should have earned.

Out of the Blue captures Waters’ complicated personality; the man could be warm and paternal, generous and funny, but also imperious and insensitive. Ultimately, he went along with Scott Cameron’s ill-advised management decisions that in 1980 resulted in the dissolution of Waters’ longest-serving band. Two years after the breakup, Bisesi occasionally ran into Waters and was once invited to join him on stage. In his post-Muddy career, he played and recorded with other bluesmen, including Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson. When Waters died in 1983, Bisesi attended the funeral to pay his respects to “a man I loved who had changed my life forever.”    

“Thank you, Muddy Waters,” he concludes, “for giving me my livelihood, my path forward in music.”